An Arty Weekend in Texas

A lovely Memorial Day weekend in Texas included not one, but two museum trips (tell your family you like art, and they're happy to haunt museums with you).  First up was the Blanton Museum in Austin on the UT campus, which I visited with my uncle and 89-year-old grandmother.  Although she prefers to navigate with a cane, my grandmother consented to visit the museum in a wheelchair.  An afternoon spent pushing her past art changed the way I think about exhibits.  What's the best vantage point for someone in a wheelchair to observe art, taking into account glare from the lights and the size of the piece you're looking at?  Do you walk slowly past every single piece in a room, navigating awkwardly around all the corners, or just choose a couple bigger pieces in each gallery to look at?  How do you negotiate the constant dance of art gazing when you're not on two feet?  Before visiting with her I had no idea how much I actually move around when looking at a particular piece art, nor how unnecessarily large most galleries are.  My grandmother decided she needed to be relatively far away from a piece of art to see it properly, so I ended up reading the labels to her.  

"Danaë", Before (left) and After (right), Follower of Simon Vouet, 17th century

The Blanton had an interesting little exhibit on conservation, featuring the piece above.  When the Blanton cleaned the 17th century painting they'd owned,  they could begin to see additional figures.  Do they uncover them?  Leave them?  Much discussion later, the curators decided to uncover the additional figures with solvents while carefully leaving the original image intact.  The new figures allowed them to identify the subject as Danaë from Greek mythology, with Zeus above her and a putto (apparently they don't call them cherubs or cupids anymore) beside her.  In the context of the restoration, the curators decided the original images had been painted over in the 19th or early 20th century to accommodate an art market that preferred simple female nudes.  But the exercise raised some interesting questions.  How do you accommodate pieces of work that have often survived hundreds of years in less than ideal circumstances?  To what degree is it important to preserve the original, and to what degree is it important to present and preserve the viewable?  The Blanton curatorial staff has concluded their task "involves ethical considerations about how and to what degree to intervene in the lives of artworks... conservators and curators strive to find the delicate balance between retaining an object's history and original condition, and protecting and preserving a work for future generations."  It's a fine balance, involving oneself in the life of art.

"Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals)", Cildo Meireles, 1987

Eclectically, the museum also includes a great deal of modern and contemporary art.  One of the things I was most pleased to discover was the museum's juxtaposition of poems with at least one piece in each gallery.  The piece above by Meireles features 600,000 pennies, 800 communion wafers, 200 cattle bones, and 80 paving stones behind black cloth, entitled "Missão/Missões."  The piece's artistic project is to reveal the social and political forces underlying the drive for conversion, and is paired with a poem by Rebecca Spears entitled "Ruinas Jesuiticas."  "We sometimes dream,/ not of the great cathedrals, but of simple structures reduced/ to their bare bones.  In them,/ no stained glass filters light./ Instead rare coins shifting under our feet sound/ like the metal of dying voices, hammered together, singing/ Hands to work, hearts to God."  I particularly like the pool of pennies joined to a chandelier of illuminated cattle bones by a single string of communion wafers.  What is the foundation of the church?  And is heaven really comprised of cattle bones in the sky?  It's possible, I suppose, because everything seems possible in Texas.

"Progress II", Luis Jiménez, 1976

I also appreciate that the Blanton has a sense of humor, placing a classic sculpture by Frederic Remington of a mountain man on horseback within sight of this piece by Luis Jiménez.  Monopolizing the gallery, a gigantic cowboy ropes a longhorn with demonic red electric eyes in fiberglass, resin, and acrylic paint.  Jiménez first started fabricating in his father's neon sign shop, then married his talent in fiberglass with Pop Art.  In a state dominated by the mythology of cowboys and and in a town with longhorns plastered on every t-shirt and bus stop, it's nice to see something that calls the unquestioned second religion of the Lone Star State ironic.

"Dream Village," Marc Chagall, 1929

In San Antonio, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Austin (which I realized after booking a plane ticket, assuming west-coast-style that everything in Texas must be at least a six hour drive apart), I had a chance to see my aunt and uncle, my cousins and their spouses, and their kids (an adorable Nolan and a brand-new baby Ezri).  After a family centered Memorial Day dinner, Dave took me to see the McNay Museum.  The McNay had famous names scattered across every wall.  I liked Chagall's still life above because of the solid center that bleeds into dreamy surroundings, questioning the border between the substantial and the insubstantial.  The McNay is a 24-room mansion with a sleek contemporary addition, beautiful alcoves and brightly painted tiles surprising visitors as they wander about looking for art.  Private museums based on family collections can be a bit incoherent, but they're also very interesting.  An entire gallery was devoted to a single El Greco painting, with no less than six wall didactics debating the authenticity of the piece.  The question of giving the piece a new frame received its own wall treatment; I suppose that must have been an expensive and controversial frame.

Natalia Gontcharova, Scene design for Act I in Le Coq D’Or (The Golden Cockerel), 1913 

The McNay also had one of the most gorgeous libraries I've ever seen, chock full of old illustrated books.  In and around the library a collection of "theatre arts," which is a fancy way of saying oodles of costumes and brightly colored scene sketches, were on display.  I'm used to institutional museums where everything is carefully designed to cohere, but I must say there's a certain charm to museums like the McNay.  To see that a real person, with very human and slightly eccentric tastes, is behind the random grouping of objects presented puts  humanity back into the center of the art.  It's humans who make and collect and come to see art, and the story of the people who created the collection is as relevant as the story of the art itself.

Huge thanks to my Uncle Jim for fearlessly navigating Austin, the Blanton Art Museum, and the film Renoir, and a big thank you to Katie and Dave for letting me crash with them in San Antonio.